A terrible economy makes strange bedmates

FRANK A. DEFILIPPO

March 19, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

FOR AS LONG as anybody can remember, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have behaved like two dogs circling and sniffing, trying to decide whether to make love or war.

Now, out of necessity, they're carrying on like long lost buddies, even eventually hoping to team up with the likes of impecunious Baltimore city to salvage a budget that's mutually rewarding for all three.

This year, with a weak economy and a state budget that's relentlessly out of whack, everybody -- even hoity-toity Montgomery -- has a tambourine in hand.

In Annapolis, pork is power. But in a punishing year such as this, pork-barrel projects such as duck decoy museums and froufrou historic restoration projects are being replaced as the coin of the realm by redistribution formulas, aid to education and mass transit funds. Budget bartering has displaced the pork chop.

Still, democracy in action doesn't come cheap. And in the dance of legislation, no lawmaker will ever cast a tough vote without getting something tangible in return. But it took Montgomery County a quarter of a century to learn the art of the deal the hard way.

Back in the bad old '60s and '70s, Montgomery and Baltimore were chummy enough to vote in tandem and work together for mutual advantage. But for the past dozen years, the two have been arch rivals, forcing a new and more natural alliance between the city and Prince George's County.

Each of the three subdivisions exports its own peculiar brand of xenophobia. Viewed from a distance, Montgomery is a land of the rich and famous where there are more Mercedes than there are in Stuttgart and the conversation among the good burghers is mostly about the shortage of au pairs and the high price of

chardonnay. Montgomery's black population is about six percent and its politics is as mannerly as a game of croquet.

By contrast, Baltimore city and Prince George's County resemble each other in many ways. The Washington suburb has a 51 percent black population, while the city's is 65 percent. Until the recent economic development boom, Prince George's was a poor tobacco-road version of its prosperous neighbor, Montgomery, but not nearly as impoverished as the city.

The politics of Baltimore and Prince George's are bossy organization affairs that are as zesty as mud-wrestling. Montgomery County was zoned to keep people out. Prince George's was zoned to make zoning lawyers rich.

Now the population center and the political strength have shifted to the suburbs around the District of Columbia, and the city has steadily become a dependent welfare colony.

The recession has battered high-income Montgomery worse than it has hurt Prince George's, which is more middle-brow. And the chronically broke city's primal scream is gimmee, gimmee, gimmee.

So what to do? In a year of tough choices, it should come as a no surprise to see the delegations from Baltimore city, Montgomery and Prince George's form a solidarity movement in favor of tax increases.

Instead of pork, Montgomery wants money for education and mass transportation, while Prince George's wants funds for education, mass transit, crime prevention, magnet schools, the University of Maryland College Park. Of course, Baltimore just wants money.

In the five rounds of budget cuts last year, every subdivision in Maryland felt the pain, but none more so than Baltimore and Montgomery -- for totally different reasons. Baltimore's just plain busted, victimized by the twin scourges of declining population and a shrinking tax base. But in Montgomery, expectations run high and the quality of life -- the Q-factor -- is among the choicest in the country. While Montgomery has collapsed under the weight of its own prosperity, Prince George's has flourished to some degree at its neighbor's expense. Montgomery's flaky no-growth policies have actually driven businesses over the line into the rambunctious and less restrictive Prince George's.

The coming together of the three major subdivisions, at least for this occasion, is pregnant with political purpose. Yet with 19 days remaining in the session and only 10 days before the deadline for enacting the budget, there is still some question about whether the newly formed trilateral force can rally a tax increase for which there is little other consensus.

The House and Senate leadership disagrees on how to reconcile the budget shortfall. The key issue is how much revenue to raise. The Senate on Tuesday reluctantly approved $245 million in tax increases (including a broadening of the sales tax). But House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, opposes increases in alcohol and cigarette taxes, as does Del. Tyras S. Athey, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and owner of an Anne Arundel County liquor store. House Republicans are also adamantly opposed to tax increases. The budget is almost certainly headed for a House-Senate conference committee.

So after years of thumbing its nose at its parvenu neighbor, Montgomery County has finally realized that it can't survive economically as a loner. In politics as in life, what goes around comes around. Now it's Montgomery that's begging for help.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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